A good bartender is like the most trusted hair stylists: They have similar aprons, and sometimes that boost of confidence you get with a great drink can be matched with getting a spiffy haircut. When you find the right bar/hair person, it’s sort of a match made for life. And if they leave their job, you’re likely to follow them to their new spot to keep getting that same fade.
When I heard the creator of one of my favorite cocktails in OC (Cigarettes & Coffee at ARC) had moved on to serve as beverage manager of the Urban Kitchen group, I knew a visit to its closest property, Cucina Enoteca at Fashion Island, was in order. “Yeah, almost everything on the drinks menu is new,” says Koire Rogers of the 11 additions to the updated menu. Each one focuses on a flavor profile leaning on what Italy does best (amaro and vermouth) mixed with what Koire does best, intertwining them with tastes of what coastal California is thirsty for.
Take, for example, Smoke Signals, a Mezcal-based drink that resembles a margarita in appearance, but it unfolds into a serious form of long-distance communication between ingredients. Passionfruit (Brazil), Yellow Chartreuse (France), Del Maguey Mezcal (Oaxaca, Mexico) and lemon hit your palate like comic-book fight sounds—Wham! Kapow! Zwap! The drink is brightly vibrant and complex, with layers of fruit and smoke and summery feels. A dried sprig of thyme is torched for garnish, perhaps an invitation to send actual smoke signals to your date with a cocktail napkin. Two poofs = you’re hot; three poofs = you’ve got a nice booty; anything after four = let’s make babies.
Cucina’s burrata + tomatoes achieves ultimate food flattery for almost any drink on the menu. The ooey-gooey, creamy burrata curds meld with heirloom tomatoes, hearts of palm and briny Gaeta olives worth fighting over. The cheese spreads like soft butter on the crispy ciabatta toast, giving a satisfying crunch. If you’re into carbs like I am, don’t feel shy about asking for extra bread to sop up every last drop. Various pizzas (try the date, ricotta and bacon with egg), house-made pasta (go for the bucatini) and small plates round out the great options for sharing.
Although the word enoteca translates to “wine repository,” cocktail-curious winos can easily find a drink or two that will send them down the cocktail rabbit hole for years to come.
Cucina Enoteca, 951 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 706-1416; also at Irvine Spectrum, 532 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 861-2222; www.urbankitchengroup.com .